Long-term shifts in American culture have reshaped the way we live and eat today.

Restaurant signAs we’ve often observed, cultural imagery is a very sticky thing. Mention the word “dinner” and our mind envisions a set of people gathered around a table. The words “family dinner” narrows that vision onto a mom, a dad, and, usually, two or more kids. Mention the word “snack” and most people begin talking about a child’s after-school snack or munching on chips while watching TV.

But given the dynamic change in American culture (in general) and our eating culture (specifically), these cultural stereotypes have all but lost any relevance they once had.

People are snacking throughout the day, eating alone in greater numbers, and exploring alternatives to food prep by shopping grocerants and ordering meal kits. And that’s just for starters. Shopping for food, dining out, and planning what to eat have all changed dramatically in the past few decades as American food culture has shifted to prioritize, on the one hand, greater customization to personal tastes and needs — especially through healthier, fresher, less processed food — and on the other hand, our continuing and undiminished desire for convenience, variety, and good value.

To really grasp the implications of the profound changes occurring in America’s eating behaviors and practices requires a different, disciplined approach to the study of today’s consumer.

The Hartman Group has been documenting the U.S.’s evolving food culture since the 1990s. Over these years and in analyzing the preceding decades, we have seen long-term shifts in broader cultural values and notions of a healthy diet that have undermined “traditional” ways of eating, including what we eat, when we eat it, whom we eat it with, and who makes it. Meanwhile, demographic changes related to work, gender, and parenting have reshaped how households approach food and eating when time and energy are scarce but food is abundant.

With a new study fielded in late 2017, we examined changes to the culture of mealtimes from the micro level to the macro level. The outcome of this comprehensive research endeavor is our report, Transformation of the American Meal 2017.

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The report explores how traditional notions of the mealtime and meals have evolved — and what remains the same.

It pinpoints new occasions and opportunities emerging from consumers’ changing habits and needs, and shows what traditions or assumptions about mealtimes no longer hold true. The report illuminates the strategies and tensions consumers have around planning and procuring meals while providing a fresh perspective on what they wish mealtimes looked like and what gets in the way.

Key Questions Answered

The report answer questions, such as the ones listed below. Key to answering the questions was an investigation of what American consumers’ meal planning, decision making, preparation, and eating and drinking habits look like right now and how these have changed over the years.

  • How do meals change throughout the week — and over time — in terms of what they look like, where they come from, who plans and prepares them, who eats them and how?
  • What do consumers aspire to when it comes to meals?
  • What prevents them from eating the way that they would like to?
  • What is the impact of snacking?
  • How do consumers decide when to go out versus cook at home when so many meals are decided on within an hour of consumption?
  • And ultimately, what do these changes mean for food and beverage manufacturers, grocery retailers, restaurants, and food service operators?

Transformation of the American Meal 2017 provides an in-depth exploration of the following topics:

  • The Changing Role of Meals
  • Mealtime in America: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner Today
  • How Meals Change: Consumer Triggers for Changing Meal Routines
  • Making Meals Today: Planning, Procuring, and Preparing
  • Eating Meals: Mealtime in the American Household
  • Making Meals Better: Inspiration, Aspirations, and Barriers

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